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Speak Up. Speak Out. Use Your Voice.

By Jeanette R. Harrison, MPH

The day I made the walking video, "Speak Up. Speak Out. Use Your Voice," the sun was streaming through the trees on the Greenbelt here in Idaho. I found this gorgeous spot on the trail where the water tumbled among the trees, and the sun cast slits of light among the leaves and the water. The vision was breathtaking. Like something from a movie. I held my iPhone up to record the video, something that usually comes out without much rehearsing. This time, I did at least 30 takes of a one-minute video. "What is wrong with me?" I kept asking myself. "Why can't I do this?"

I knew the answer, though. I knew that my problem was, and is, that I felt for years that I couldn't speak up, speak out, or use my voice. I felt so unheard and so invalidated. I told of struggles I was going through in life, and the response was "be positive" "stop complaining" or "you are exaggerating." I tried reaching out to people I thought cared, but I didn't feel that they did. I remember at one point feeling like I was screaming from a mountain top and that no one could hear me or would listen. 

Shooting my latest video by the Boise River. 

Have you ever felt that way at work? Have you ever felt so frustrated and trapped, yet so open and vulnerable at the same time? Have you ever felt like no one was listening no matter how loud you yelled? Like if you got on a megaphone, those around you couldn't hear what you were saying? 

You aren't alone. Many of us have felt that way. It's okay to feel frustrated, angry, ignored, isolated, and confused. Tell people about it. That's okay, too. If you are like me, though, sometimes it's easier to keep it to yourself. It's easier to not have to separate out your feelings when you are having twenty different feelings all at once. Or you think no one is listening. Or you think the person you are contacting probably doesn't care and maybe it is just "empty chair therapy." Or maybe they are dismissing everything you say by saying, "this person just has a mental health problem" when you actually have some very valid concerns. Because, for some reason, in this country, we dismiss emotions as mental health issues, instead of validating others' emotions.

In Addressing Health Worker Burnout, the Surgeon General encourages health workers to be their own advocates in their workplaces, their communities, and their learning environments. What if you work somewhere where you don't feel heard? What if the community around you doesn't want to listen and is dismissive of your words? What if they say, "Oh, she is overly emotional or she is just mad at the world?" What if you just feel so alone that you can hear the sound of loneliness? 

The answer is this. You keep speaking up. You keep speaking out. You keep using your voice. I spent years being told not to say anything. I was told by someone in the past two years to only talk to two or three people. That my voice didn't matter. That if I had to talk to someone about my problems, I should just talk to myself. That if I wanted to talk about my life, I should just get a therapist. No. That isn't how it has to be.

Speak up about how you are feeling about your work, your community, and your school. Speak out about how you are feeling after a traumatic experience, a challenging situation, or a moment of joy you just can't wait to share. Use your voice to show that your feelings matter, you have ideas, and you have suggestions that could make things better. Maybe someone else feels the same way, too. Maybe that person needs to know that they aren't alone, so they can feel validated, empowered, and valued.